Computer Science

How to Become a Back-End Developer: Skills You Need for the Job

How to Become a Back-End Developer: Skills You Need for the Job
There's one question every web developer needs to ask themselves before they can begin their career in earnest: do you want to focus on front-end or back-end development? Image from Unsplash
Kenrick Vezina profile
Kenrick Vezina November 21, 2019

Back-end developers are the unsung heroes of the web. No matter how stylish, user-friendly, or intuitive a website's design, it could not exist without the hidden digital infrastructure that back-end devs build.

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So you want to become a web developer. Who can blame you? The web certainly isn’t getting any smaller, and web development as a career is growing faster and paying better than most jobs. What’s more, many of us—whether we realize it or not—have acquired rudimentary web-development skills through our daily use of blogs, personal websites, and social media. (There was a time in the early aughts when LiveJournal could have billed itself as a crash course in HTML.)

There’s one question every web developer needs to ask themselves before they can begin their career in earnest: do you want to focus on front-end or back-end development? Put another way: would you rather be Taylor Swift, or her audio engineer?

No, really, this is a helpful analogy. An audio engineer is like a back-end developer, working out-of-sight to streamline and integrate all the pieces so that what the audience sees and hears dazzles. If you’re a technical thinker, love coding, and don’t mind working behind the scenes, then becoming a back-end developer might be a good fit.

Read on to learn more. In this article we’ll cover:

  • What does a back-end developer do?
  • Skills needed to become a back-end developer
  • Education needed to become a back-end developer
  • How to become a back-end developer

What does a back-end developer do?

Every website can be split into two halves: the front-end and the back-end. The front-end is the part visitors see and interact with, as displayed locally by their internet browser. The back-end is the part of the website hidden away on a server. It includes databases, content management systems, and code that ensure the site works as intended.

It is very much a yin/yang situation, as a whole, functional website needs its front- and back-end to function in harmony. Indeed, to do the job well, a back-end developer needs a solid understanding of the basics of front-end development as well (and vice versa).

What is the role of a back-end developer?

Back-end developers never work in isolation. A typical web-development team will have individuals in several roles. On smaller teams, some more specialised roles may be omitted—the smallest teams may, in fact, be comprised of only one or two people who are able to fill every role as needed—but this isn’t viable for larger, faster-paced projects. While the specific titles can vary quite a bit, most medium-sized web development teams will have individuals in the following roles:

  • Project sponsor (aka Primary stakeholder): The person or organization hiring the team to create or rework a website
  • Project manager: The primary contact between the sponsor and the rest of the team; coordinates the project, making sure everyone is on-task, on-time, and on-budget.
  • Web designer: There are a number of specializations within web design—graphic designers, user interface (UI) designers, information architects—but they all focus on the layout of the site. This includes visual elements like fonts and colors, but also the way pages and information are organized and presented to the user.
  • Quality assurance (QA) engineer: The QA engineer uses a variety of tests to hunt down bugs and ensure the site is functioning as it’s meant to.
  • Web Developers: The people who actually build the site using code, according to the design. This team includes front-end developers, back-end developers, and full-stack developers.

On a team, back-end developers typically work most closely with other web developers. On larger or more complex projects, there may be several back-end developers, each handling more specialized tasks. Back-end developers also need to work closely with front-end and full-stack developers to be sure that they’re building the appropriate digital infrastructure to meet the front-end’s needs.

What is a back-end developer responsible for?

As a back-end developer, you’ll be responsible for:

  • Implementing and managing a database (or databases)
  • Compiling and analyzing data generated by the site
  • Optimizing site performance (search functionality, page loading, etc.)
  • Troubleshooting performance issues and errors as needed
  • Collaborating closely with front-end developers and the rest of the team to ensure the back-end is meeting their needs
  • Keeping up with the latest programming languages, best practices, and industry trends
  • Looking for new ways to improve site infrastructure

How much do back-end web developers make?

Web developers are well-paid in general, and back-end developers are no exception. lists the average base pay for back-end developers at around $75,000 per year. Salaries start out around $50,000 for those with minimal experience and climb to nearly $120,000 for senior positions.



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Skills needed to become a back-end developer

Any aspiring web developer needs a variety of technical skills and experience, many of which overlap between front-end and back-end development. Remember: back-end developers still need to write code that interacts with the front-end of the site, and a working knowledge of front-end development is incredibly helpful when coordinating with your fellow team members.

What should you learn to become a back-end developer?

There are three major categories of skills you’ll need to develop to break into back-end development: programming, database management, and framework utilization. In addition to these, back-end developers should also work on:

  • Organizational and time-management skills
  • Spoken and written communication skills
  • Familiarity with accessibility and security compliance
  • Hosting environment management
  • Version control and version control systems (e.g. Git)—used to manage changes to a site’s code over time

What programming languages do back-end developers need to know?

The bread-and-butter back-end development is writing code that runs on the server that hosts your website. To do so, you’ll need to be proficient in at least one server-side programming language such as:

  • PHP
  • Java
  • Python
  • Ruby

As long as you’re proficient with one, that should be enough to get you started. As you progress in your career, however, you’ll almost certainly develop a solid grounding in most of the popular programming languages.

FYI, for front-end development, you’ll need to know:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript

What database management systems should back-end developers know?

Databases are what sites use to store and organize large amounts of information. To manage that information and make use of it, they use database management systems. Some common systems include:

  • Oracle
  • MySQL
  • Microsoft SQL Server
  • IBM’s DB2

There’s no “right” choice of which to start with, although Oracle and Microsoft SQL are often recommended for newbies.

What framework should you know as a back-end web developer?

Server-side web frameworks (or “web application frameworks”) are bundles of software that simplify the process of back-end development. They contain a variety of useful tools and libraries to expedite common tasks and make the development process as streamlined and user-friendly as possible. Frameworks can be sorted according to the programming language they’re based on, and for any given language there may be dozens to choose from.

If you’re just joining a team as fresh recruit, there’s a good chance a back-end framework will have already been chosen for you. When it comes time to choose a framework for your own project, you’ll have to balance a variety of factors such as ease-of-use, scalability, and security. For novices, however, the Mozilla Developer Network recommends Django (Python) and Express (Node/JavaScript) as easy-to-learn frameworks.

Education needed to become a back-end developer

These days, there are a dizzying number of ways to learn the basics of web development. Sites, phone apps, software packages, online courses, in-person bootcamps—the list is always growing. It’s entirely possible to teach yourself most of the skills you’ll need to become a developer using these tools.

However, a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field offers considerable benefits:

  • A structured learning program
  • Access to university resources
  • A firm grounding in the concepts and theories that underpin web design
  • Networking opportunities with faculty and peers

This can set you up with more options later in your career, such as software engineering or IT security analyst. Also, many larger development companies expect a bachelor’s degree from their applicants.

More contentious are master’s degrees in computer science. You definitely don’t need one, but you might want one. A master’s can help you stand out from the large pool of aspiring developers with bachelor’s degrees. Three notable master’s programs:

  • Boston University—Master of Science in Computer Information Systems with a concentration in web application development
  • University of Denver—Master of Science in Information and Communications Technology with a concentration in web design and development
  • Saint Joseph’s University—Master of Science in Computer Science with a web and database technologies concentration

How long does it take to learn back-end web development?

If you opt for a bachelor’s degree, it will take you four years of full-time study to get through your undergraduate education. At that point, you should be able to find an entry-level position in web development. On the other end of the spectrum are various “bootcamps” that promise to have you job-ready in a several weeks or a few months.

The most important factor is how much time you have to set aside for learning: if you’re able to focus on learning the skills of back-end development, you should be able to master the basics in less than a year. More so than in some other careers, however, the basics are just the beginning in web development. There will always be new programming languages to learn, frameworks to master, and problems to solve—to say nothing of keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change.

How to become a back-end developer

How do you know if a career in back-end web development is right for you?

First, a reality check: web development isn’t a quick ticket to guaranteed wealth. Yes, it’s a lucrative field, but web development today is a much more competitive field than it was even a decade ago, and aspiring developers need to do more to stand out from the crowd if they want to find good work. So, while coding is indeed a valuable skill, it’s not enough on its own.

Bear in mind that back-end developers tend to work in the abstract much more than front-end developers do. They often don’t have the benefit of immediate visual feedback from the front-end and user-friendly interfaces to guide their work.

And if you’re enticed by the idea of working from home, making your own hours, and the heady freedom of self-employment, remember that operating as an independent contractor comes with its own unique challenges. Contracting is actually three jobs: finding work, doing the work, and getting paid for the work. Being great at the second job—back-end developing—is no guarantee you’ll be any good at the first or third, or that you’ll enjoy either.

Where do you start if you want to become a back-end developer?

If the technical, abstract world of back-end development still appeals to you, we have good news: you can get started down the road to a career in web development from right here in your browser. In a matter of clicks, you can start to teach yourself coding.

We can’t all be Taylor Swift, or even one of her dancers. Someone has to work in the background, making sure all the elements are coordinated to produce a streamlined, impressive presentation. That’s the role of the back-end developer in the web development process. Even if no one sees your work, the show can’t go on without you.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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